On Nov. 20, the Chautauqua County Chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness held its graduation ceremony for participants of its fall class at the Park Church in Sinclairville. The NAMI Family-to-Family Education Program is a free, 12-week course taught by trained family members for family members of individuals with severe mental illnesses. Over 300,000 family members have graduated from this program nationally. The classes in Chautauqua County are taught by Shelly Dillingburg, the current local president of NAMI and Raquel Spears who is also the Intensive Services coordinator for Chautauqua Opportunities Inc.
The course includes current information about schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder (manic depression), panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, and co-occurring brain disorders and addictive disorders. It provides up-to-date information about medications, side effects, and strategies for medication adherence, current research related to the biology of brain disorders and the most effective, evidence-based treatments to promote recovery. In addition, participants gain empathy for their loved one by understanding the subjective, lived experience of a person with mental illness, learn problem solving, listening, and communication techniques, acquire strategies for handling crises and relapse, focus on care for the caregiver coping with worry, stress, and emotional overload, receive guidance on locating appropriate supports and services within the community, and gain information on advocacy initiatives designed to improve and expand services.
In a recent article published by Michael Fitzpatrick, NAMI executive director, he said, "We now have a new reason to be proud. A landmark study published in the current issue of Psychiatric Services, a journal of the American Psychiatric Association, has found that the program "significantly" improves coping and problem-solving abilities of family members. It offers "concrete practical benefits" and serves as a valuable "complement" to professional care. Doctors and other mental health care workers are often unable to provide enough support to family members, even though families often play a critical role in treatment and recovery ... Even more gratifying are letters NAMI receives from people who have taken our classes. When actress Glenn Close launched the Bring Change 2 Mind campaign, her sister Jesse, who lives with bipolar disorder and has a son with schizophrenia, wrote: "NAMI helped us as a family." And one Florida mother wrote this week: "When I began the Family-to-Family program, I was still shell-shockedMental illness was an unknown, unthinkable and unwanted commodity for our family." She wanted her son back. "What I got instead," she wrote "can best be told in my son's words from a letter slid under my bedroom door."
"Mom, since you graduated from the NAMI program, I'm a lot happier because you're happier ... I've always known you loved me 'just the way' I am,' as you always say, but now I think I can love me just the way I am."
Feedback from participants of the Chautauqua County course included comments including, "It gave me insight into situations that I knew nothing about. I feel like I am more aware of mental illness and may be better able to cope with its issues. The instructors were great and took the time to re-explain things if they were unclear. I really don't think the class could've been improved." Another participant reflected, "I find this course very informational. The impact on overall care is a great change. To understand is knowledge and knowledge is empowerment. The teaching support team was very educated and taught the course well. I would recommend that this team be promoted. Their skills and personal experiences enriched the class." A third participant offered the following, "I've been struggling through the mental health system completely alone for 10 years. Covered our entire county with very little support. This course has given me hope that things are beginning to change - therapists and docs now want family input. I was so pleased with each and every class. To be able to learn what my family member is going through, how I can improve my communication with him. I don't see how you could possibly improve on such an enlightening course."
If you are the parent, sibling, child, significant other or relative of someone with a severe mental illness, the NAMI Family-to-Family Education Program can help. Courses are generally offered in the Spring and Fall. For information on upcoming classes please contact Shelly Dillingburg at 673-5443 or Raquel Spears at 410-1673.